IMPROVING ASSET RECOVERY IN NIGERIA
By Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku
The inaugural Global Forum for Asset Recovery which held in the District of Colombia has come and gone. As somebody who participated very actively from the passive shadows, I feel a sense of pride to know that some of the modest efforts we put in bore some fruit. Those first fruits came in form of an announcement from the Federal government of Nigeria and its Swiss counterpart that both parties signed agreement for the repatriation of $321million of the loot which the late Sanni Abacha stashed in Switzerland. Prior to that announcement, a surprise one came from Nigeria’s number one lawyer, Abubakar Malami, that assets worth N861million from the Malabu deal had been returned to Nigeria.
The Malabu OPL245 deal was one worth $20million dollars to which a minister of petroleum under the late General Sanni Abacha, Dan Etete awarded to himself for a mere $2million. Thirteen years after that award, another party was said to have paid the requisite fee and taken over ownership from the beneficial owner of OPL245 Dan Etete. Part of the $861million which the Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami announced at an ANEEJ pre-GFAR Consultative Forum in Abuja in October, 2017 is a result of the legal battles which had gone on over the years over this Malabu deal. Therefore, it was only yesterday, Friday the 15th day of December that a UK court ruled that an amount to the tune of $85million from the Malabu deal be made forfeit to the federal republic of Nigeria. That ruling in favour of Nigeria is a victory for Nigerians as it will soon make the said money available to finance development initiatives in the country. It has come at a time when Nigeria is running a deficit budget and plans to borrow to finance the deficit. What has become evident and which holds true is that in the asset recovery tripod, the negotiations leading to a repatriation of stolen wealth anywhere in the world is much more dicey and sensitive much more than a freezing and seizure of such stolen funds.
There are other asset recovery cases like the Malabu – the Diezani, the Dasukigate and the cases of Nigerians fingered as beneficial owners of offshore companies. These cases are unique in the fact that the usual suspects are here with us. They are not ghosts, and to that extent, they have put the full measure of the proceeds of their crime to bear in the fight to repatriate the monies which they are alleged to have made away with. Just to give you an idea of how tricky it is to negotiate and repatriate stolen assets from offshore stations dispensations, let us examine one of the innovative methods used: on the 27th of September, 2017, a Klepto Bus ride took place in the city of London. The objective of the bus riders was to identify any politically exposed person in Nigeria, and elsewhere with beneficial or unexplained ownership to any choice property. Ten Nigerian names/identities popped up, and this was how The Punch newspaper of October 7, 2017 put it: The properties were linked to two top lawmakers, one of whom is also a chieftain of the All Progressives Congress, a former military Head of State, a late military Head of State and a retired senior military officer, who is also a serving government official.
I believe that it would take more than political will to recover and repatriate assets from these kinds of people. Why? A certain friend once told me that the only reason the Abacha loot is being repatriated is that Abacha is dead. But even from the grave, the man has not rested. But the current administration must monster the courage to get to the root of all these cases, after all, they promised Nigerians that the fight against corruption was a priority. While the negotiations which led to the Swiss government signing an MoU/agreement with Nigerian government to return $321million, were on, some big questions kept bordering my mind, will the repatriated loot be re-looted as it happened in the past or will it be carefully used to improve the lives of poor Nigerians? To what extent has the federal government demonstrated the will to apply the fund where it will have maximum impact? Has the framework for monitoring the use of the repatriated look been properly laid down? We need to reflect on these simple but serious question and if the right thing has not been done, there is still time to do the needed adjustments. Many Nigerians are aware and some have even benefited from the Social Investment Programmes which the Federal Government of Nigeria is implementing through the National Social Investment Office (NSIO). The home grown school feeding programme currently happening in some States, the N-Power, the National Cash Transfer programme and the Growth Enterprise and Empowerment Programme, represent the area of focus of the Social Investment Programmes for which the repatriated loot will be channeled to and the mode of payment to beneficiaries is through “direct cash transfer”.
The Social Investment Programmes are quite innovative and has gone a long was to support many families especially, the hitherto unemployed youths, but some school of thoughts have argued that the repatriated fund should be used to take care of tangible infrastructural projects that are equally easy to track and as well impact greatly on Nigerians. The argument is that, the funds need to be subjected to proper procurement process rather than direct cash transfer. Besides, it may be challenging to identify and single out the poorest of the poor who are the target of the programme.
In 2006 when Switzerland returned about $500million of the Abacha loot, it was said to have been factored into the national budget and used for the implementation of projects. But a shadow report by the Nigeria Network on Stolen Assets revealed that some 29 of the 53 surveyed projects hardly met requirements of reasonable degree of completion or sufficient operation. (Peter Lang, 2011). Involvement of CSOs saved those monies from being re-looted. That monitoring framework used at that time involving CSOs, the World Bank and the Federal Government of Nigeria has been hailed internationally as a ‘paradigm for a truly transparency process ’. That justifies why the proper application and monitoring of the $321m is of serious concern to all.
Beyond all this, Nigeria is ripe for a proper legal frame work on asset recovery and the Nigerian CSOs at the just concluded Global Forum for Asset Recovery made useful proposition which should be taken seriously. The CSOs urged the Nigerian government to accelerate action on the passage of pending bills – including, inter alia, the Proceeds of Crime Bill – into laws in order to strengthen asset recovery framework in Nigeria. The POCA Bill would actualize the key commitment made during the London Anti-Corruption Summit in 2016. The CSOs also urged the Nigerian government to strengthen, through legislative action, the powers and autonomy of the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) so that the Unit can operate in consonance with the standards of FATF and the EGMONT group. Channelling all recovered assets to compensate victims of corruption so as to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also came out as a strong recommendation, and the CSOs concluded that the monitoring of the use of recovered assets through a transparent and accountable framework by CSOs and other interest groups was critical.
Etemiku is ANEEJ communications manager.